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The Weekly Wrap: Canada’s out-of-touch public sector unions are taking their entitlement too far

Commentary

In The Weekly Wrap Sean Speer, our editor-at-large, analyses for Hub subscribers the big stories shaping politics, policy, and the economy in the week that was.

Union reaction to Ottawa’s back-to-work rules is an opening for Max Bernier

A minority parliament is usually the subject of regular election speculation. But we haven’t seen much of that since the Liberals and New Democrats announced a supply and confidence agreement in the months following the 2021 election. 

This week, however, we heard calls from public sector unions for the NDP to abandon the parliamentary agreement and precipitate a federal election due to the government’s new policy that federal public servants must be in the office at least three days per week. 

It seems like a rather odd issue over which to plunge the country into a summer election. Especially since most Canadians have returned to the office. While remote and hybrid work reached as high as 40 percent of workers in April 2020 and then remained constant at about 24 percent between May 2021 and May 2023, the percentage was cut in half to just 12 percent as we entered 2024. 

The remaining share of Canadians still working from home is by far disproportionately comprised of public servants. A late 2023 poll, for instance, found that four in five federal employees were still working remotely in part or in full. 

From this perspective, the federal government’s three-day-per-week policy is far from punitive or radical. It remains more flexible and generous than a lot of other Canadian workplaces. 

Yet one wouldn’t know it from the reaction of the public sector unions. They called it a “slap in the face” and obliquely warned of a “summer of discontent.” One union representative even bizarrely described the physical workplace in terms typically reserved for third-world prisons: 

Bedbugs. Bats. Mice. Cockroaches. Mould. Odours. Poor air quality. Missing or broken equipment. Trash littering workstations. These aren’t conditions fit for federal employees.

The unions’ extraordinary reaction strikes me as a misread of the Canadian public’s appetite to affirm their members’ asymmetric workplace arrangements. This isn’t a Norma Rae moment. It’s an expression of out-of-touch entitlement. 

We’ve previously warned about the growing divide between private and public sector workers. The sizeable gap in wages, benefits, job security, and broader perks already seemed unsustainable. Calling for an election and threatening work action to avoid having to show up to the office three days a week risks blowing the fault line wide open. 

The only question is whether there are any political voices prepared to confront these issues. It’s not a big surprise that Prime Minister Trudeau has been silent or NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has promised to “put pressure” on the government to reverse its back-to-work policy. It is however more notable that Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has stayed clear of the debate. As an Ottawa-area MP, he may be reluctant to provoke the large number of public servants who live and vote in his riding. 

If so, this issue could represent a big opportunity for Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party. The party has lacked an identity since the repeal of the pandemic restrictions and Poilievre’s own political ascendancy. Polls currently put its public support at just 2.5 percent. 

Coming out firmly in favour of returning public servants back to the office, including threatening to terminate those employees who refuse to comply, would presumably be popular with a silent majority of Canadians—particularly, one assumes, among conservatives. 

As Conservative leader, Poilievre has carefully protected his right flank. He would be wise to avoid letting Bernier outflank him on getting public servants back to the office.

Protesters gather outside of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2024, while Vice President Kamala Harris is meeting with Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz. Susan Walsh/AP Photo.
We’ve made the Israel-Hamas war about Western domestic politics

A lot of domestic and international news this week was marked by the opposition of Western governments, including the Biden administration and the Trudeau government, to Israel’s pending ground invasion of Rafah, a Southern Gaza city which is believed to be the last holdout of Hamas militants, including possibly its leader Yahya Sinwar. 

Most Western commentary and reporting on the topic has tended to focus on the growing tensions between Israel and Washington and the individual role of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in prosecuting the war. There’s been little discussion about the case for such an offensive or the role of the Israeli war cabinet and broader public opinion. 

In Monday’s forthcoming episode of Hub Dialogues, I put these questions to Dan Senor, a leading American foreign policy thinker and practitioner with strong connections in Israel. His answers are illuminating. I’d encourage The Hub community to check it out. 

As he explains, Israel has thus far “dismantled” 20 of Hamas’ original 24 battalions. The remaining four, which are estimated to represent about 15,000 soldiers, are believed to be in Rafah. If the goal of Israel’s overall military operation is to seriously degrade Hamas’ capacity for terrorist offensives, then it must push on to neutralize these remaining fighters and their accompanying infrastructure. 

It’s also hugely important as a matter of deterrence and a sign of strength. Israel’s military response to the October 7 attacks cannot be merely understood as short-term retribution against Hamas. It’s also directed at Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and others that aspire to do harm to the state of Israel, as well as its new partners in the region who have come to the negotiating table due in part to Israel’s perceived strength. Abandoning the operation at this point would represent a huge victory for Sinwar and Hamas and a sign of weakness to Israel’s regional enemies and prospective friends. 

As for the tendency to personify the Israeli war effort through the figure of Netanyahu, Senor reminds us that the war cabinet is comprised of senior figures like Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot who are among the prime minister’s chief opponents. His point here is that the ongoing military operation—including the Rafah offensive—cannot be understood as merely a reflection of Netanyahu’s unilateral decisions or his own domestic political calculations. Reports in fact indicate that the war cabinet has unanimously endorsed the invasion into Rafah.  

Yet a lot of these basic details have been excluded in the public debates in Canada, the U.S., and other Western countries. It’s as if we’ve collectively subordinated the facts on the ground in favour of our own domestic considerations. Diaspora politics or the election cycle have gradually come to trump everything else. 

Regular Hub contributor David Frum anticipated these developments as early as the next day after the October 7 attacks. As he presciently put it

Israel will need time to do its work. In the first shock of horror after a Hamas terrorist outrage, Canadians light up their national symbols with blue and white. Then a week passes, and Canadian politicians with an eye on domestic anti-Israel voters get impatient. They condemn violence on “both sides” and interpose to protect the terrorists from the consequences of their own aggression. Let’s not repeat that pattern that only perpetuates violence. Hamas started the war. Let Israel finish it.

Indeed. His assessment was right then and it’s still right today. 

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner speaks to the media in Toronto on Monday, May 6, 2024, after his team’s season-ending loss to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Chris Young/The Canadian Press.
Could a little regional competition save the Leafs?

Yesterday the Toronto Maple Leafs’ executive brass held a year-end press conference to defend another disappointing season and discuss what comes next.

Fans were unironically promised major changes from team president Brendan Shanahan, who has presided over every personnel and roster decision for the past decade. One can understand if they’re a bit skeptical.

One Leafs analyst tweeted: “Brendan Shanahan completely missed the mark. No answers, no transparency, no authenticity, no conviction.” A member of my hockey chat put it this way: “[I’m] just not sure how someone can have a job like this for 10 years in a ‘results business’ and have such crappy results and still be around.”

An underrated explanation is that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a monopoly over the most hockey lucrative market in the world. The organization generates significant annual profits regardless of the product on the ice. Demand for corporate sponsorships and rink-side tickets simply outstrips supply.

We know from basic economics that this can create a perverse set of incentives. It blunts the inherent impulse towards efficiency and improvement. It can diminish ambition and foster complacency. It can contribute to only winning one playoff round over the past decade.

If a key source of the Maple Leafs’ problem is a lack of market competition, then perhaps the solution is a new NHL team in the Greater Toronto Area. We know that there’s more than enough demand in the region to sustain another team. That’s demonstrated each time the Maple Leafs play in Buffalo and the arena is full of Leafs fans who traveled across the border for affordable tickets. It seems self-evident that of the possible expansion options, the GTA is most viable choice.

There’s only one problem: the Maple Leafs believe that they have a veto over the establishment (or relocation) of a NHL franchise within 50 miles of Scotiabank Place. The team cites section 4.3 of the NHL constitution that states: “No franchise shall be granted for a home territory within the home territory of a member, without the written consent of such member.”

Yet a 2008 review by the Canadian Competition Bureau judged that this provision was “anti-competitive” and only a majority vote of the NHL board of governors is needed to establish or relocate a franchise. The NHL has not since tested the ruling with a specific case.

Maybe now is the time. Not only would it significantly boost league revenues (including a massive, one-time expansion fee), but it would impose some much-needed competition on a Maple Leafs organization that has consistently let me and other long-suffering fans down.

‘Anaida Poilievre is a great asset’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

This past week, readers discussed topics including whether or not Anaida Poilievre is the Conservative Party’s secret weapon, the shifting consensus on Canada’s progressive drug policies, Pierre Poilievre’s flirtations with the notwithstanding clause, and Canada’s growing fertility crisis.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

Sorry, Canada, but we can’t tax our way to prosperity

Monday, May 6, 2024

“The only outcome of this feudal approach will be a slow and steady economic decline, all under the control of an ever-burgeoning bureaucratic class in Ottawa, taking more of the fruits of the labour of Canadians, leaving us with less.”

— RJK Wells

“We do need a tax system that encourages economic growth while being fair and generating enough revenue to fund our society without going into too much debt (too much debt is when the debt service cost alone is one of the biggest slices in a government expenditure pie chart). What constitutes fairness and a healthy societal structure are obviously debatable and different political parties and citizens will have different positions. However, economic growth is the quantitative measure of success—or failure—of whatever way we go.”

— Paul Attics

Anaida Poilievre is the Conservative Party’s secret weapon

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

“Anaida Poilievre seems like a ‘perception antidote’ to many of the usual attack lines directed at Pierre. She is an accomplished person and certainly a political asset.”

— Paul Attics

“I do believe that Anaida is a great asset to our up-and-coming prime minister and she will be helpful to Canadians. We can look forward to having two brains to run our country. She is quite impressive in her own right.”

— Mary

Canada’s harm reduction regime is collapsing as disillusionment grows around decriminalized drugs

Wednesday, May 7, 2024

“Drug liberalization policies over the past twenty years have been seriously misguided. We’re only now starting to realize the deadly health effects of drugs that hitherto had been thought of as harmless, such as cannabis and its effect on brain development, anxiety, mood disorders, hospitalizations, impaired driving, etc.”

— Mark Johnson

“Neither decriminalization nor forced treatment will solve this problem. There has to be an approach which treats the whole person.”

— A. Chezzi

“Providing treatment, preferably mandatory for addicts, and real punishment for importers and dealers is going to produce much better results.”

— Kim Morton

Two men are seen at an outdoor supervised consumption site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.
A constitutional storm is brewing as Pierre Poilievre flirts with the notwithstanding clause

Thursday, May 9, 2024

“Ultimately I’m more comfortable with elected politicians having the final say on constitutional matters than unaccountable judges. If the government of the day has truly gone overboard, vote them out next time around.”

— Gord Edwards

“There’s something to be said for making section 33 harder to use (federally) than a simple vote, while still keeping it as a failsafe.”

— J. Toogood

“There needs to be better language for invocation of the notwithstanding clause for actual emergencies with a higher threshold, rather than using it for politicking.”

— Cathy

“Our current Supremes have taken law-making upon themselves without consulting Canadians. They have overridden Parliament’s decisions and those of their predecessors…Legislatures make laws, courts interpret them. Unelected judges should never make new law.”

— Ian MacRae

We are not taking Canada’s fertility crisis seriously enough

Friday, May 10, 2024

“Yes, not everyone will or wants to marry or have children, much less at 18 or 20. But, I think we’ve nearly given up on the idea that that’s an adult life that should be possible for everyone and should be planned for. There was also arguably some poor planning with thinking boomers’ downsizing would free up houses, which ignores who has the money and therefore choice.”

— Valerie

“Good issue to focus on. We are losing an important part of our societal framework.”

Ben

“I believe that the fundamental issue is both partners trying to have full-time jobs. It is extremely difficult to do that and raise children, even with low-cost daycare.”

— Al Raftis

“There are certainly the financial aspects impacting birth rates, but I’m guessing the major factor is social.”

— Michael B.